Passengers ride the 49-Van Ness Muni bus on Friday, March 12, 2021. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Passengers ride the 49-Van Ness Muni bus on Friday, March 12, 2021. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Supervisors Preston and Haney to introduce legislation to pilot Free Muni

Legislation calls for board to fund three-month program to offset fare revenue loss

Supervisor Dean Preston has long advocated for Free Muni, but now he’s a man with a plan.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Preston and Supervisor Matt Haney announced their intent to introduce legislation for a three-month pilot program of free public transit in San Francisco, financed by one-time funding from the board to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency that would offset fare revenue losses.

The estimated payment would be between $9.3 million and $10 million, according to Preston, who has asked the City Attorney to draft a budget supplemental to hash out funding details.

If approved, the pilot would launch on July 1.

A companion ordinance would require MTA to announce the program and notify riders that fare payment is voluntary; suspend fare enforcement for the program’s duration and instead shift fare enforcement staff to safety monitoring and assistance; and report back to the board monthly regarding ridership, revenue collection and other impacts.

“A return to full service and piloting Free Muni during our recovery are not mutually exclusive,” Preston said in a statement. “They are two sides of the same coin. Our goal is to make sure public transportation is extensive and widely-used, especially as we recover from this pandemic.”

Calls for fare-free travel on The City’s public transit system have historically been met with resistance by those who say that taking away a key source of SFMTA revenue only further cripples its ability to provide reliable, frequent and high-quality service and requires severe trade-offs between agency priorities.

Despite one-time federal funding that has narrowed SFMTA’s projected operating budget deficits for the current and next fiscal year, the agency will still only be able to restore about 85 percent of Muni service by Jan. 2021.

Beyond that, it faces a ballooning structural deficit that could reach $36 billion over the next 30 years.

SFMTA previously announced in February that all trips to and from COVID-19 vaccine appointments would be free.

Preston, however, said that the fare waiver didn’t go far enough to support frontline workers, those traveling to essential destinations or economic recovery more broadly, and called for free travel on public transit for the duration of the pandemic.

He’s also pointed to the combination of generous federal funding and historically low fare revenues during the pandemic as evidence that now is a uniquely advantageous time to launch the pilot.

“A year into the pandemic, San Francisco residents are struggling and need help. Free Muni will bring them some relief, and help restore ridership as Muni gets back on track,” he said in a statement, which also included estimated savings of $81 per month for the typical Muni rider.

Once fully crafted, this proposed legislation would go to the Board of Supervisors Budget Committee, which is chaired by Haney.

“Supporting public transit during our recovery should include improved and enhanced service and the elimination of fares, at least during the COVID-19 emergency and recovery,” Haney said in a statement. “Free transit for riders is a win-win for our residents and our environment. It’ll be a benefit to all of us, whehter or not you are a Muni rider yourself.”

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